SPRINGFIELD, Ore. - Over 150 employees were safely evacuated from the Swanson Mill in Springfield Thursday afternoon as flames tore across the wood processing plant, sending up a column of black smoke high above the South Willamette Valley.
Eugene-Springfield Fire Chief Randall Groves said the blaze started at around 5 p.m. in one of the wood processing plant's dryer units.
"We do know that all of the employees were safely evacuated and at this point, I'm unaware of any injuries," said Chief Groves.
Groves said it could be several days before they know what caused the blaze at the Swanson Group Manufacturing Springfield Plywood and Veneer facility at 1651 South F St. in Springfield.
Francisco Lopez said he was talking to a friend on the phone when he learned about the fire.
"I was like, 'No, I'm going to go to work at 8:30,' and he said "No, your mill is on fire'."
Lopez didn't believe it until a coworker showed him the fire via video chat on a cellphone.
He said workers began texting and calling each other, making sure everyone was out safely. "Shocked, you know?" he said. "I bet everyone at work is, too, you know?"
Willy Sanchez said his father was inside the mill when the fire broke out.
"My dad was in there, he works pretty close to the dryer and he told me all he did was look up and he saw a wave of flames going towards him," said Sanchez.
Sanchez's father clocked out at 4:15 p.m. A few minutes later the mill caught fire, with flames quickly spreading to nearby logs and equipment.
"I saw the smoke, it was heavy black smoke, the whole time I was like 'is this really happening, is this really the mill?'," Sanchez said.
Officials placed a mandatory evacuation notice at about 5:40 p.m. for those living within a 1-mile radius of 26th and South M Street. the evacuation was lifted about an hour later.
After several tense moments, Sanchez said his dad called him to tell him the workers had been safely evacuated from the burning plant.
His father told him a nearby worker tried to stop the fire from spreading, but he was no match against 30-foot flames.
"He saw the flames, and he couldn't get to it on time. It just expanded and it was too late, it was too late," said Sanchez.
Fire officials said the fire could smolder for days.
Witnesses reported hearing an explosion audible from as far away as South Eugene. The county fire marshal is working to determine a cause to the fire.